During the fourth quarter of 2018, I dipped into a couple of nonfiction books that required more attention than I could give them at the time. The only one I read with anything like the attention it deserves is Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.
The Warmth of Other Suns is the sort of nonfiction book the folks who devised the Common Core State Standards had in mind for students to read: The Warmth of Other Suns is truly literary nonfiction.
Wilkerson tells the story of the migration of six million southern blacks to the North in the period between World War I and 1970 through the experiences of three of those people.
Ida Mae Gladney, an unremarkable black woman in rural Mississippi, migrated in 1937 to Chicago where she remained true to her traditional southern roots—family, church, hard work, neighborliness—and earned the respect of even the criminals and addicts who repudiated her values.
George Starling, denied the education he wanted in Florida, migrated to Harlem in 1945, where he took the only job he could find: working as a railway porter on routes that took him regularly back into the Jim Crow South. Lacking his work ethic, his family fell apart, becoming statistics in the sociological studies and inside stories in newspapers.
Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, already a doctor and former Army surgeon when he left Mississippi in 1953 to set up practice among the black community in California, found the only way he could attract patients was by pandering to the blacks’ ideas of what success meant—a white Cadillac and flashy clothes—and giving personal attention white doctors were too busy to provide.
Wilkerson interweaves the stories of these three individuals with the broader historical picture of race relations in the United States and the socioeconomic changes that were occurring during the twentieth century.
One thing Wilkerson doesn’t do is find scapegoats.
There are plenty of people who share in the blame for the causes of the Great Migration and plenty who share in the blame for its consequences, including those who participated in it.
Wilkerson writes clearly, using the most common terms that will accomplish her aims. Hers is a scholarly work without scholarly pretentiousness.
It is also a work of journalism.
Wilkerson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing when she was Chicago Bureau Chief for The New York Times, sent hours talking to people, visiting in their homes, eating with them, going to church with them, retracing the routes they took out of the South. From all she sees and hears, she selects telling details.
Isabel Wilkerson.The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Random House. ©2010. 622 p. ISBN:9780679444329
(FYI, during the third quarter of 2018, I was reading and writing reviews the bestselling novels of 1980, 1981, 1982, and 1983, which I’ll be posting at GreatPenformances between Jan.12 and May 28 this year.)